Not False, But Not What We’re After

My annual “Quotes Month” (July) has extended a third of the way into August now. It is time that I get to say something of my own, and I want to address an issue that (I think) concerns most of us Christians in this gradually globalized world: There are certain kinds of “mysticism,” of “meditation,” and of “contemplation” which, while not false, are not what we are after as Christians.

I, for one, do not consider Buddhist techniques of meditation, the contemplation associated with a Chinese garden, or the mystical acts of various Sufi orders to be “false” in the sense of made up, psychologically projected, or the result of an evil angelic influence. There are, to be sure, temptations involved in these great human achievements, if we treat them as ends which usurp the divine commands and divine pedagogy revealed in the Scriptures (and particularly in the Gospel). But all created goods come to us with such temptations. That is no reason to call them false.

In these non-Christian mystical and contemplative systems, with their outlooks and their solutions to the great human questions, there is something of the very much human. There is some potential of human nature drawn out of the historical situation in which people have found themselves, cared for, tended, and allowed to manifest itself clearly.

But, in the main, in the non-Christian mystical and contemplatives systems, one finds something inherent in human nature rather than something supernatural and gained for us on the Cross.

In fact, there are two main lines of approach to mysticism or contemplation.

One is the receptiveness of love, charity, agape. It is the child in the hands of the Father. It is the one filled with a Spirit whom he or she cannot control (passing even beyond any human control of the virtues). It is the one whose wisdom is not acquired by any learning or technique but rather given from the scandalous Cross and finding glimpses of the Crucified One in all those here-below. A human being suffers, in the fullest modern and etymological senses, divine things. God gives. We suffer it, and we suffer. This is the quintessentially Christian contemplation. It is a contemplation in suffering and of changing sadness into joy. It is without technique. It is found in quiet and in the city. It is demanded of Christians. It is morally required of us to, at least, tend towards such divine contemplation, towards such love.

The other mysticisms and contemplatons are (in general) techniques. They attain to something by human doing. For humans to thus attain to it, it must be locked within created nature and accessible to human beings in their very structure as human beings. It is not supernatural. It does not come from the Cross. It is not, in that sense, quintessentially Christian, nor is it demanded by God of any Christian. It is not an experience of salvation. It is, like all the marvels of created nature, there to explore — but only within the bounds of a life oriented to the God who revealed himself. (If one is interested by it, one must not sin in attaining it.)

These other mysticisms are thus not “false.” They are not made up, imaginary, the product of psychological delusions, or the creation of the maliciousness of the devil. They are true, and they are mysticisms — but only in a limited and analogical way. They may attain some incommunicable experience, like a yogi attains after much psychologico-rational purification or a Zen Buddhist after a particularly shocking experience that bars logical analysis. They may touch on something absolute, but the absolute is not the Absoluteness of a God who imparts his very self, his charity, into our hearts and adopts us as children.

The “absoluteness” here is relative, like the absoluteness of one’s own being. There is nothing conceptualizable or thinkable beyond one’s own being or existence, within oneself. When the yogi, the Sufi, or the Buddhist gets to the point where rational thought stops and something great is attained, not piecemeal, but in a great brilliance that absorbs and flattens all, they have “seen” something real. But it is not God, for God gives himself and is not attained by creatures. It is simply a relative absolute, a created absolute, great and unleashed from within human nature, by a kind of backward path into the interior depths as they exist in humankind. It is an achievement, not a gift or a grace. It is not a saving grace, only a temporal (but seemingly atemporal) good.

This is why Thomas Merton (in his middle period) distinguished a mysticism which “seeks to penetrate the ontological ground of being” from a mysticism which is “religion of [supernatural] divine gift.” They are not identical. To treat them as identical is to have already lost the greater of the two. That which is revealed and of the Cross is not the same as that which can be reached by our own effort.

Of course, even within these non-Christian mysticisms, there are the pleas for divine help. It is not all one’s own effort. (Islam, Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan, and bhakti yoga in India are clear examples, either realized or in potentia, of this.) One may say to God, “Please.” And there, even in the midst of a life oriented towards the attainable and the things of created nature, one may find an openness to the God who “exists and rewards those who seek him” (cf. Heb 11:6). For with even the slightest belief in that supernatural gift and aid, then there is space for God to implant the eternal life and mysticism essential to Christianity within the tree of temporal life and mysticism.

A Christian is free to pursue techniques of prayer. Even more, a Christian is free to pursue “meditation” techniques which aim at certain mystical experiences. But they cannot be forced on others. And these “mystical” techniques must never be confused with real Christian prayer, which takes divine revelation as its measure. They may be permitted. They must never be enforced. And they are not what we, ultimately and in the final analysis, are after. For we aim, not only at a certain experience of things that God has created, but to union with God by the supernatural means he has given, and to love him forever.


4 thoughts on “Not False, But Not What We’re After

    • This topic is one I face regularly — if for no other reason, because Southeast Asia (where I am) is that place where Indian and Chinese influences meet, and most countries here also have a sizeable Muslim minority or plurality. It’s hard to miss the dimensions and scale of the problem from here, even when we’re not sure of what the problem means. Glad the way I tried to phrase things was helpful. ^_^
      – Ben

  1. I’ve been thinking on this blog post since Aug. 11. Ben, it doesn’t coincide with what you wrote earlier on Centering Prayer and those techniques. I can’t find the post but if I recall you basically denounced the techniques of CP, which has its origins in Eastern prayer techniques and is not Christian. I agree with that earlier post of yours but not this one. You don’t outline specifically the “techniques” you are referring to in your post but I guess it is like the below references:

    When Pope Benedict XVI was Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. On p. 34, footnote 12, he writes “Pope John Paul II has pointed out to the whole Church the example and doctrine of St. Teresa of Avila who in her life had to reject the temptation of certain methods which proposed a leaving aside of the humanity of Christ in favor of a vague self-immersion in the abyss of divinity. In a homily given on November 1, 1982, he said that the call of St. Teresa of Jesus advocating a prayer completely centered on Christ ‘is valid even in our day, against some methods of prayer which are not inspired by the gospel and which in practice tend to set aside Christ in preference for a mental void which makes no sense in Christianity. Any method of prayer is valid insofar as it is inspired by Christ and leads to Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ [(cf John 14:6). See Homilia Abulae habita in honorem Sanctae Teresiae: AAS 75 (1983) 256-257] What else did Cardinal Ratzinger say about mind-emptying prayer? In the same document, Cardinal Ratzinger states, “With the present diffusion of Eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian.” He goes on to say, “Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ.” He says they abandon the Triune God, “in favor of an immersion in the indeterminate abyss of the divinity.” *****Then he says mixing Christian meditation with Eastern techniques can lead to syncretism (the mixing of religions).*****
    What warnings does Fr. Amorth, the Vatican exorcist give us on CP? Fr. Amorth, states that “Yoga, Zen, and TM are unacceptable to Christians. Often these apparently innocent practices can bring about hallucinations and schizophrenic conditions.” (Centering prayer and Transcendental Meditation are almost identical, so this warning would apply to both CP and TM)
    What does the Catechism have to say about this type of prayer? The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to mind-emptying prayer as “erroneous”. In section #2726, it describes “erroneous notions of prayer.” It then lists different types of prayer that fall into that category. It states, “Some people view prayer as a simply psychological activity, others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void.”
    What does St. Teresa of Avila say about contemplation? She said that contemplation is a gift from God, and no technique can make it happen. She says it is usually given to people who have a deep prayer life and are practicing many virtues, although God can give it to anyone he chooses. She repeatedly insists that contemplation is divinely produced. She said that entering into the prayer of quiet or that of union whenever she wanted it “was out of the question.” She also said in her book, Interior Mansion, “For it to be prayer at all, the mind must take a part in it.” Our Pope, when he was Cardinal, quotes St. Teresa in his booklet, Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation on p. 34. She said “the very care not to think about anything will arouse the mind a great deal”, and that the separation of the mystery of Christ from Christian meditation is always a form of ‘betrayal.’ St. Teresa advised her nuns to meditate or think about the Passion of Christ as a preparation for contemplation.
    The Catechism describes contemplation as “a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus” (#2715) The focus is Jesus and the heart is involved.
    In summary, the Vatican document on New Age, Pope Benedict XVI as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II, St. Teresa of Avila, the Catechism, and Fr. Amorth give warnings about mind-emptying prayer. We must remember that prayer is a dialogue with God. A person wanting to reach contemplation begins with normal prayer, or they may remain silent with a loving gaze toward God. Then if God so chooses, he may take that person up into ecstasy or some supernatural state. Then and only then would their normal faculties (ability to think) be suspended! It would be a gift from God!
    Copied from:
    Anne Feaster Sword of Light & Truth Ministries, Inc. swordoflightandtruth

    Therefore Ben, I don’t see the point of “allowing” other techniques of prayer outside of our own faith tradition. Syncretism, the blending of religious practices which is not allowed by our Faith, will eventually for the person blur the lines of Truth. As it so happened with the CP monks. One only needs to read online their many strange practices. There is simply too much of our own faith to practice and adhere to without side tracking into other practices not to mention the dangers. I believe the culture you are surrounded by and you are immersed in it and can possibly be influenced by it. I will pray for you. Julie

    • Hi,

      The post about centering prayer, etc. is here:

      I don’t think that the tone is much different (“One could do far worse, one could do much better” – “I don’t like them, but the reason isn’t because I think that they explicitly teach many wrong things”), except that in the meantime I had been forced against my will to participate in such activities by someone in religious and civil authority over me, and so my tone is harsher or perhaps, with difficulty, holding back from being harsher.

      In both pieces I denounce things like CP as not aiming at Christian prayer and Christian growth. In both I say that they have some real and natural values. (How could they not? They exist.) However, I say that A is not B. I don’t see how that could not be clear. That’s the very title of this piece: “Not What We’re After [i.e., Not What We Are Pursuing]”! Christian prayer is not a self-emptying. Christian prayer is not a technique. But that does not mean that the other has no real values and is “false” in the sense of “made up, psychologically projected, or the result of an evil angelic influence.” It is not Christian or graceful. I am explicit on that. Techniques do not give us grace. So I’m not sure why you think I need to be more explicit. If people are free to pursue things that are not grace in themselves, then they must do so in a morally correct way: “If one is interested by it, one must not sin in attaining it.” That is a very heavy statement. It seems that you underestimate the value that I put on that short sentence. I have been through a considerable share of purgatory-on-earth for it.

      In the newer piece I am clear that these “natural mystical experiences” are not Christian: “[T]hese ‘mystical’ techniques must never be confused with real Christian prayer, which takes divine revelation as its measure. They may be permitted. They must never be enforced.”

      The “may” is a may. If something may be permitted, that does not mean that it is. It doesn’t say that this thing is permitted for any particular person. I think you’re reading way too much into the word “may.” The “may” means something like this for me. For non-Christians, these techniques may certainly co-exist with grace, for non-Christians do not know the whole story and live in some forms of ignorance. For Christians with deficient spiritual foundations, the same may also be true. For well-formed Christians who know what they are doing but desire to divorce the evil in the techniques from the good (knowing that if there is something attained, it is not grace), maybe there is a way, too. (I don’t know. I certainly don’t care to look for it.) But that does not mean these techniques have any essential relationship to the spiritual life, hence they must be pursued without sinning and, moreover, they cannot be enforced.

      (The choice of the word “enforced” is a reflection of my own experience and suffering.)

      Aside from the fact that the older piece is about Christians and the newer post is primarily about non-Christians, the only difference that I’m aware of between the older and the newer pieces is that in the newer piece I say that there is an “analogical” value to the term “mysticism.” But what other word is there? It is not equivocal and it is not identical, and the experiences these techniques aim at are not absolutely false or made up. So they must be pale analogies. This is actually something I have believed for ages (since at least 2007, which in terms of my spiritual development is before reception into the Catholic Church but after making the decision to become Catholic). This is a fairly common notion. I got it from Henri de Lubac, Jacques Maritain, the Indianologist Oliver Lacombe, and the Islamicist Louis Gardet (the latter of which was one of John Paul II’s primary sources on Islam, according to his biographer). “Analogical” is not identical. It is an analogy, a pale one. This second mysticism is not what life is about. It is not Christian. It is not supernatural. It, at best, leads only to an experience of the ground of being, but not to grace.

      This is what I actually wrote:

      “[These mystical techniques] may touch on something absolute, but the absolute is not the Absoluteness of a God who imparts his very self, his charity, into our hearts and adopts us as children. The ‘absoluteness’ here is relative, like the absoluteness of one’s own being.”

      In no way does saying that one could in theory find some incommunicable experience of one’s own being mean that one should do so, still less that one should stop there. Why stop there or, in practice, even spend time to pursue that? God wants to give more. Why put time into something objectively less?

      (Of course, not wanting to control people and conditions that I have no business knowing, I admit that there may be proportionate reasons to do so, but I do not claim that such reasons exist.)

      Note that:
      – if an incommunicable experience of the ground of one’s own being is possible without grace, it is not wrong or evil in itself (though some means of attaining it may be wrong and evil – one must not sin!)
      – it is not “false” on that count, for it does attain to something and is not merely made up or imagined or a psychological projection (i.e., it goes deeper than mere psychological tricks – though deeper is not to say higher)
      – but it is not grace and gets nothing of grace on that account

      But of course, any particular technique that has been codified may be another story. They all have serious issues. That is true.

      On the other hand, I do not think that such issues are insurmountable per se. It would be theoretically possible to delimit what is actually natural and what is morally disordered in the techniques. (I have no interest in such a project. But, since there is something natural and thus relatively good involved, in theory such a project is possible.)

      The main issue is whether these techniques are grace, Christian. The answer to that is no. If someone answers that no, then what other natural goods they pursue freely and by volition centred on God is not my place to judge. The world is too vast for me to judge that. I have no place at it. I’m sure plenty of people wonder why I care so much for plants or books. There are plenty of moral disorders that could arise from pursuing those natural goods also. One must not sin in pursuing any created good, and one must relativize them all in the face of God and his grace (which is attained by no mere technique nor has any essential connection to any other pursuit than Christian life and Christian prayer).

      That said, I have no interest in these “meditation”/”mystical” techniques nor do I encourage anyone to do them. I personally resent the group of Christian priests who tried to force such techniques on me, and I struggle with forgiveness. I had considered religious life or some participation in it, but I discovered with horror that to attain such a life, I would have to abandon, at least in practice, my views on meditation and contemplation. I left the difficult situation that I was in, became jobless and quasi-homeless in a country half a world from my home, and struggled for months to keep my visa situation acceptable or at least non-prosecutable – largely because of this issue and others related to it. So there is a lot of difficulty with resentment and forgiveness, as well as a general lack of trust of the clergy. If you would like to pray for me, please direct it to the right problem. (Thank you, friend.)

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